EDWARDS — If you’re looking for a short conversation with Noel Harris, don’t mention insurance. If you do want to talk about insurance, then pull up a chair — you’re in for a chat.
Harris is the founder and owner of Wall Street Insurance. Not long after a hard lesson in coverage and personal liability — an incident that left him $40,000 poorer — Harris learned about the insurance business. He started the agency in 1984, after a brief stint as the local representative with a big insurance company convinced him his customers would be better served if they could pick and choose between insurers.
Valerie Harris, Noel’s partner in life and business, said the difference between independent agents and big-company representatives is sort of like banking. For most people, who fit into pre-determined profiles, a big bank or big insurance company works just fine. But some people don’t fit those profiles and need services the big companies don’t provide. That’s where companies like Wall Street make their living — especially in a place where many people fall outside of the standard profiles.
When Harris started, in an office on Wall Street in Vail, the resort and the valley were more isolated from each other than they are now — a call to Edwards carried long distance charges. There was one other insurance agent in Vail at the time — a representative of a big company — and new clients appreciated having an agent with access to other companies and someone they could visit while in town.
Ironically, easy access is what prompted Wall Street’s move to Edwards in 1998.
“People would say they didn’t want to park, or come from Lionshead,” Harris said.
Today, the valley’s year-round bustle has moved to the middle of the valley. Sitting in Harris’ second-floor office, with a bird’s-eye view of Larkburger, reveals nearly-constant foot and vehicle traffic flowing past. That makes an office visit easy to arrange.
While Wall Street’s location change was a big move, the industry as a whole has changed even more. Harris said perhaps the biggest change in the business is advertising that has turned insurance into a commodity based on price above all else.
TAKING THE TIME WITH CUSTOMERS
As big companies acquire smaller ones, and as people do more online insurance buying, Harris believes insurers are losing touch with clients and consumers.
An online process can’t tell a customer just how much insurance he or she actually needs.
“When you look at complaints against insurance companies, it boils down to the fact agents didn’t take the time with customers,” Harris said.
And thus begins a soliloquy about risk and the need for coverage. For instance, he said, state-mandated minimums won’t cover a motorist who hits a pedestrian who then requires lifetime care. Those costs can run into the millions, Harris said. That can lead to financial ruin for people who don’t have appropriate coverage.
Home losses are similar. Many people don’t understand what’s required to replace a home lost to fire or other disaster, he said.
A conscientious agent will ask clients the right questions to protect their interests.
“You’re trying to put yourself in a reasonable position for a worst-case scenario,” Harris said. “We try to make sense of that and give you a proposal that fits those needs.”
After 30 years in the business, Harris isn’t slowing down.
“I want to do this until my employees say ‘get out,’” Harris said. That won’t happen any time soon, he said. “As long as I have the passion to do it, and to help my employees and clients, I’ll be here.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.